The XX Factor

Childhood Obesity and Sweet-Free Schools Both Deserve a Re-Frame

Can we flash back, for a minute, to the question of school dress codes? Once upon a time in another era, protesting youth decried the infringement on their right to be free to be you and me. Conservative stodgy types defended bans on long-haired boys and pants on girls. “Students learn better in a controlled environment,” they declared. “Some limits are good.” But blue jeans prevailed. An older generation still decries a too-casual, laid-back world.

Somehow, the question of how to help kids in their struggle with the temptations that lead to obesity appears to have taken place in a parallel universe. How did liberal Democrats become the standard-bearers for what’s at heart a conservative position? Conservative: disposed to restore traditional conditions (like family meals and dessert as a rare treat). Traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness (like 1st Degree Burn Blazin’ Jalepeno Doritos). Cautiously moderate (in eating habits). Having a tendency to conserve (the resources it takes to produce and ship said Doritos). Seriously, is there anything more conservative, thrifty, Republican than a hearty oatmeal breakfast? I’m not surprised that many Republicans are struggling with Sarah Palin’s attacks on Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative. How poorly we should allow our nation’s children to eat may indeed be a political issue. But it’s not one that splits easily on party lines.

Dress codes turned out to be less black and white than that initial liberal/conservative divide suggested, too. A few years on, that controlled environment thing started to look like a pretty good (research-supported) idea. Most schools landed on some kind of happy medium: blue jeans, yes. Exposed navels, no. How kids eat when they’re at school may need both liberals and conservatives to figure out a similar balancing act.

Like many commenters, I wholeheartedly agreed when Rachael howled in outraged protest at the prospect of St. Paul, MN schools banning all sugary, fatty, salty foods from the premises, lunch boxes included. But a little research left me wondering if my gut reaction was as short-sighted as Palin’s attacks on Michelle Obama’s efforts to help more kids make the kinds of good choices Palin’s parents helped her make as an (active, healthy-eating) child. Few of us were even willing to listen to  Anne , whose kids actually went to a sweet-free school in Warsaw. It worked, she said. They ate healthier, learned plenty, and ate what she wanted to feed them at home.  Anne’s pragmatism didn’t convince me, either. I was searching for evidence that the ACLU was moving in on St. Paul when I found, in (red state) Georgia, a school that’s been sugar-free for more than a decade .

Brown Mills Elementary School in Lithonia, GA is sugar-free, and that doesn’t mean they’ve replaced it all with variations on Splenda. It means school lunches  of tuna on wheat with peaches for dessert (not canned in syrup). It means corn kernels and broccoli, and breakfasts of omelets and sausage. It means no birthday cupcakes or bake sales, and no lunches of chicken nuggets, or, as my kids’ old school offered as a regular entree, cinnamon buns. It also means fewer disciplinary incidents, counseling referrals and truancy rates. Anecdotal evidence (there’s not enough data for a definitive result) suggests BMIs and weights are down, too. The only thing that’s up? Test scores.

What if we took a deep breath, set aside our raised hackles about people trying to tell us how to raise our children and our sense that this is all part and parcel of banning Happy Meal toys and sucking away our nation’s collective willpower, and imagined a sweet-free school? Imagine sending your kids off to school for their seven-hour day and knowing that they’d actually only had access to reasonably healthy, balanced food there. Rachael proposed that kids who were waiting to eat when they got home because they didn’t like what was on offer at school would behave poorly and learn less, but the Georgia example suggests that may not be the case, and it may be worth a try. Maybe, as with dress codes, some limitations on personal freedoms can be good in some environments. Maybe that sweet-free school zone is less an intrusion on our parental prerogatives, and more a part of Michelle Obama’s nudges towards healthy living. Most of us would agree that dessert is not a right. Possibly Doritos in your lunch box aren’t a right, either.

As for a life without school bake sales and mandatory birthday treats for 24 kid classrooms? I am not a “liberal do-gooder.”  I continue to think McDonald’s has a right (and maybe even a fiduciary duty to its stockholders) to offer whatever incentives it wants to get customers in the door. But spending the night before my kids’ birthdays reading them bedtime stories instead of juggling cupcake pans? I think I can imagine that.